Detroit Water Shutoffs: A Human Rights Crisis Turning to Tragedy

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July 6, 2014; New York Times

Why spend so much time commenting on Detroit? Because the city of more than 700,000 people is bankrupt, turning the water off on over one hundred thousand water customers, and now axing the contracts of nonprofit human service groups that have been providing safety net services for Detroit’s legions of poor people residing in devastated neighborhoods. Is there any hope?

Inell Byrd, a 41-year-old home health aide still living in Detroit’s North End, told New York Times writer James Eligon, “I know the city is coming back.” That was the concluding sentence of Eligon’s moving portrait of residents of the North End, east of the Woodward Corridor of Detroit, and how they are holding on as they watch their city fall apart beneath them. Even in Ms. Byrd’s case, the story is heart-wrenching. Working two jobs to take care of her retired husband, who cannot work due to having suffered two strokes, Ms. Byrd owes $4,500 in back taxes. She has contemplated selling her home, but she pulled the house off the market after getting mostly lowball offers from white buyers.

Eligon also writes about Banika Jones, a 34-year-old woman living in the North End. After overcoming suspicions of the white social activists coming into her neighborhood, she now volunteers with one of the white-led groups, the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative. Almost in passing, Eligon notes that Jones lives in a home with no electricity and no running water because, he says, she cannot afford to pay for utilities.

Despite the concerns that the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department was shutting off the water on poor people in violation of international human rights covenants, WDIV (Channel 4 in Detroit) reported over the weekend that the Water Department is going door-by-door, block-by-block shutting off this basic service on residents who are delinquent in their water payments—some 1,500 to 2,000 customers a week, according to WDIV. The city says that residents owe over $100 million in unpaid bills. Half of the city’s water customers owe more than $150, and the average unpaid water bill is $560.

Across the border, the view of the Hamilton Spectator is that Detroit is becoming like a “pioneer town,” with no water services for increasing numbers of hard-pressed residents. Although Nonprofit Quarterly was all over this story early on, commenting on the efforts of Detroit-area advocacy groups such as the People’s Water Coalition as well as Congressman John Conyers to bring this issue to the attention of Congress, the White House, and even the United Nations, the uptake by mainstream network and cable national TV news organizations has been slow. Finally, NBC Nightly News picked up the story just recently.

Something isn’t connecting on this story. Comments abound in various places that Detroiters who are behind on their water bills are getting what they deserve, that it’s time for Detroit to start getting people to pay their water bills, electricity bills, and property taxes. Somehow, the notion that water service is not a discretionary luxury purchase isn’t getting through.

Unless plans change, on Monday morning, the Detroit Water Brigade and Congressman Conyers plan to hold a press conference announcing their plan to “launch a volunteer drive to deliver immediate relief to thousands of families affected by water shutoffs and advocate for an immediate moratorium on shutoffs and a Water Affordability Plan for all residents.” The moratorium is obviously important, but volunteer relief in a city that is already suffering from a dearth of services of all sorts isn’t much of a response. The moratorium should be accompanied by state and federal intervention to rectify the situation of residents getting unanticipated delinquency bills, facing higher than expected bills that are all-but-assuredly due to leaking water pipes, and being deprived of a requisite element of civilized society.

We suspect that Congressman Conyers is not going to pin his hopes on volunteers accompanied by the expectation that Detroit Water will have an epiphany of human concern. Governmental action—other than the turn-offs by the Detroit Water Department—is needed now before a human rights crisis becomes a human rights tragedy.—Rick Cohen

  • marge

    They don’t want to pay there water bills but they sure pay they care note. not one of these complaining about paying thie water bill would let their car note go unpaid they drive fancy cars and live in the gettho! you get what you pay for!
    Don’t pay for your water bill don’t get water simple as that.

  • Floyd

    Water isn’t free. Only a fool would think the city of Detroit should pick up peoples water bills. The city is broke. The news reports suggests that people are showing up a day later and paying their bills in full, this shows that it isn’t that they cannot pay, it is that they don’t want to.

  • Noelle

    Wow. Those are some disappointing comments there. A revival of Reagan’s 1980 classic “Welfare Queen” stereotype—they all must be living in the ghetto and driving a Mercedes, right? And complete conjecture based oh-so-loosely on what “The news reports suggests…” because certainly no one is going out and begging or borrowing to pay the bills and get their water back on. They simply MUST have had the money all along, right? Marge & Floyd, you both need a serious smack upside the head with reality and karma will surely give you one soon enough.

    Meanwhile, one in seven city residents without water is indeed a humanitarian crisis that requires a multi-lateral response from local, state, and federal government, private citizens, and aid organizations. There is no quick fix here and a sustainable solution requires rethinking the big picture of how the public administrates and delivers life dependent public services. Sadly, this is merely a microcosmic display of what is happening every day across the country—the poorest are being penalized for their poverty by losing basic human rights while the wealthy…well…they don’t even notice because this is an experience so far removed from theirs as to virtually be nonexistent in their worldview. Then, of course, you have folks like Marge and Floyd who ignorantly disparage the affected so as to avoid looking at their own roles in blindly supporting such an imbalanced and inhumane system. Glaring evidence of the longterm impact of chronic economic inequality is blatantly visible in Detroit, if anyone chooses to pay attention.

  • Rick Cohen

    Dear Noelle: thanks so much for your comments. I am constantly astounded–dumbfounded–by the persistence of the Reagan “welfare queen” stereotype and disappointed how frequently that perspective appears in our comments compared to how few we get that are like yours. What truly gets me (as someone who grew up poor, in public housing, in a single-parent household most of my childhood) is the venom some people hold toward (and express about) the poor. Your note is much appreciated here.

  • R Spencer

    Where is the responsibility of the Water Company?
    They didn’t collect or take appropriate action for years. Why should they be allowed to
    do a horrible job of running their business for decades and then recoup the losses.
    Any debt they let go for more than 6 months should be their loss.
    They had the ability to mitigate their losses and didn’t do so.

  • Anthony Barnes

    Yes, but don’t pretend that everyone who has gotten their water shut off can pay their bills.

  • Anthony Barnes

    Wow, you are really into racist stereotypes. You must be a big fan of Ronald Reagan.

  • chris lee

    The “humanitarian crises” is how can a society of autonomous educated civilized adults carry a demographic of uneducated and uncivilized adults

  • Jan

    Outrageous. We bail out GM, we bail out insurance companies, we bail out banks, we bail out Wall Street. However, for those too poor to afford increased water bills? Where is our govt? The state? Where is Obama now? He was recently involved in interceding to send striking workers back to their jobs to help their corporate employers, but now can’t even say one word in defense of the people here to bring their water back? Regardless of what anyone says about money water is a public trust that all humans need for life and health. Attempts to cut off this source of life and health by any entity deeming to own it is a breach of that public trust and the commons. I really don’t have much faith that the UN or this goverenment will do anything. I do however hope the people of Detroit raise hell because this constant abuse of the poor and middle class in America to pay for political and corporate mismanagement and corruption needs to end now as does the racist dominionist attitude of people who don’t have a CLUE about what it is like to struggle.

  • Jan

    Perhaps some are showing up a day later after having it shut off because they had to use their food money to pay for it because they have children who need the water more. But let me guess… you have mental telepathy and can read minds? I am so sick of smug condescending people like you in this country.

  • Jan

    That karma can’t come soon enough for me. I wonder how Floyd and Margie would feel if their water were shut off? If they had to live even ONE day without it. I bet they didn’t complain when taxpayers shelled ou tover 700 MILLION to bail out the blood sucking banks. This country has jumped the shark. I don’t recognize it anymore. It has been taken over by self absorbed, selfish haters.

  • greg chick

    This seems to be a water issue, really this is a social issue. I am a full blown water geek and am aware of more water issues than is reasonable, but this is a social problem. Water, health and safety are needed in urban areas or we will all suffer. Water management has been extremely poor for decades, that too was a reflection of social imbalance. So whats the fix, education and respect for ourselves and others. Greed and power create imbalance is social issues. Some people just have no ethics, while others have no desire to climb to the top of the heap. In this mix of drive systems for personal success we have losers and winners so to speak. Problem is, we are all in this together, like it or not. Fewer people are able to buy their way to a safe place, (the 1% on top of the hill). I am getting the sick feeling we as humans are a perennial species and we rise, look good, then fall, only to rise again, just like a seasonal flower. It seems we are entering the off season.

  • Nikki

    See, I get uneducated, because have you seen the state of Detroit schools lately? They’re at 40:1 student-teacher ratios as young as kindergarten. Nobody’s learning anything in Detroit right now.

    But I’m wondering where you get “uncivilized.” Are there warlords? Or cannibals? It seems to me that they live in a city, and therefore by definition in a civilization. And most of them are just out of work because the corporations they worked for shipped their jobs overseas. If a factory went in in Detroit today, I bet you dollars to donuts the hiring line would be out the door. But between the fact that no jobs exist, and that their public education isn’t sending ANYBODY to college, there’s no way out for these people.

    You’re educated and “civilized” only because you had the luck to be born where and when and to whom you were.

  • Joseph

    What a lot of comments arent getting, PEOPLE ARE PAYING THEIR WATER BILLS the city is shutting their water off anyway for reasons that make no sense

  • Sara

    The govt. outsourced all the jobs. People are broke. They can’t pay their bills. The govt. punishes them for the goats. choices. It’s not right.

  • everywhereyouare
  • Rick Cohen

    Dear everywhereyouare: lShocking but no longer surprising. Thanks for sharing the link.